29 April 2012

The real climate message is in the shadows. It’s time to shine the light.

Updated 28 April 2012

The presentation '"Saving Lives: reframing climate change around health and livelihood" explores the issues presented in this post.  It makes the case for reaching out to conservative audiences so as to widen the political space for the necessary social-economic transition. It takes a critical look at climate change messaging to date, identifies its shortcomings, and, drawing on the cognitive sciences, outlines a human-centred communication that acknowledges the threats, demonstrates agency and inspires empathy.

by Daniel Voronoff

Posted 30 August 2011

There was more than one kernel of truth in the speech made by the Shadow Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull at the Virginia Chadwick Foundation back in July. But the one I’d like to look at is the analogy about how not listening to the science on climate change:
 …is like ignoring the advice of your doctor to give up smoking and lose 10 kilos on the basis that somebody down the pub told you their uncle Ernie ate three pies a day and smoked a packet of cigarettes and lived to 95.
Malcolm Turnbull was commenting on the perils of denialism and its toxic effect on public discourse, however, the comparison also holds a very literal and crueller truth – global warming is a threat to human health.
     Just as galling as the deadly effect of denialism is the long-standing tendency of the environment movement to avoid spelling out the brutal impacts of global warming, especially its adverse health and wellbeing effects, a habit epitomised by the Australian Government’s “Clean Energy Future” campaign. For a while now we’ve been hearing that it is somehow poor, dumb and ineffective communication to discuss and elaborate the problem of global warming, its dangers and how threatening to our lives and livelihoods it is. We’re told that it’s disempowering, a turn-off, and that such ‘apocalyptic rhetoric’ is, in part, responsible for the public’s lowered inclination to consider global warming important. Sometimes we’re even told that to mention ‘carbon dioxide’ and ‘pollution’ in the same breath is a fatal cause of distraction from the one and true communication goal.
     That goal, the message we ought to be on-about, is that renewable energy and energy-efficiency are new industries with immense investment and profit opportunities, which create jobs and, by default, makes our nation strong and competitive. When asked why we should put ourselves through all the trouble of rebuilding our energy system, and for that matter, the transport system, agricultural system, the built environment, etc, etc… this is the received answer. And remember: keep smiling and don’t mention the ‘nasty bits’. Although this message is clearly true, it’s painful to watch as opportunities to communicate the problem we face are lost, mainly because each moment is a rare and valuable opening to let people know, honestly, and in a way that connects with something that is precious and tangible and that everyone has, whether poor, fair or excellent: that is, their health.
     A study cited in recent times in support of omitting the nasty bits is Apocalypse Soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting Just-World beliefs. Its main finding, unsurprisingly, is that when you present a frightening message about global warming to people, without telling them how to address the threat, they tend to become sceptical about the threat. But it’s worth noting one of the study’s conclusions is that the “findings extend past research showing that fear-based appeals, especially those not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of the messages [emphasis added].”
     A lot of research has gone into understanding the role of fear in motivating human behaviour, especially in the field of public health promotion (for example quit smoking campaigns), which can shed some light on this question of whether or not to address or omit the frightening truth. And, given that the Apocalypse Soon study tells us its findings are in broad agreement with the literature, I thought it might be useful to look over the finding of a meta-analysis of studies into the use of, what are known in the field as, ‘fear appeals’. In these analyses, the authors compile, compare and examine the findings of many similar studies and report on the results: the benefit being access to large sample sizes, lending strength to the evidence. But, before we go on, it’s useful to define a few terms used in the study that are common to the psychology literature.
     Firstly is the understanding of ‘perceived threat,’ which is said to be made up of two facets: perceived susceptibility to the threat (how at risk you feel) and perceived severity of the threat (how harmful it’s thought to be). Secondly, fear, being an emotion, is distinct from perceived threat, a cognition, but the two are, naturally, related: the higher the threat, the greater the fear. Lastly there’s ‘perceived efficacy,’ which has two facets: self-efficacy, the belief about one’s ability to respond to a threat (yes I can do it); and response efficacy, one’s belief that the recommended response can avert the threat (it will work).
     And the meta-study findings? “In sum, fear appeals appear to be effective when they depict a significant and relevant threat (to increase perceptions of severity and susceptibility) and when they outline effective responses that appear easy to accomplish (to increase perceptions of response efficacy and self-efficacy). Low-threat fear appeals appear to produce little, if any, persuasive effects… the advice to message designers is the same: A persuader should promote high levels of threat and high levels of efficacy to promote attitude, intention, and behaviour changes.”
     Some other findings:
  • Increasing the focus on severity in fear appeals appears to produce the strongest effects on perceptions. Changes in the message variables of susceptibility, response efficacy, and self-efficacy all produce moderate effects.
  • Importantly, there was no support for any hypothesized negative effects from fear appeals.
  • Strong efficacy messages are needed to match the severity and susceptibility messages otherwise ‘fear controls’ and defensive responses kick in.
On this last point the researchers note the risk associated with messages that induce fear is that they may backfire if the audience don’t believe they’re able to effectively avert a threat. In applying these findings to climate change communications, to my mind, this risk should be evaluated in the context of other risks inherent in the current, pivotal, carbon tax pitch, and beyond. The risk we face with the present suite of messages is that without stating the problem – namely the severity of the threat and our susceptibility to it – there is no argument for change. Without stating the threat, the public mind is lead to question, why a tax for innovation and jobs when the mining industry makes jobs anyway? Imagine the anti-smoking advertisement that fails to mention mouth and lung cancer, telling the smoker they should give up a pleasurable habit of ten years because, well, they’re certain to feel better. The evidence shows this appeal just doesn’t work.
     There should be no doubt about the applicability of health promotion to climate change, just go read the science. There isn’t much about global warming that doesn’t end in a fatal or morbid human consequence somewhere down the line, sooner or later. Indeed, sooner and later. And it’s precisely this point –the human health and wellbeing impacts – that should form the centre of our message. Let’s put aside the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park for a while and talk instead about heat stress, asthma, dengue fever, salmonella, drowning and third degree burns. We should tell about the economic disruption and food insecurity, and the implications of all of these for the livelihoods of our children. This is the sage advice of U.S. communications experts who’ve taken the trouble to consult with health professionals and develop a timely primer on climate change communications centred on health.
     To those who argue that recourse to ‘fear appeals’ is ‘manipulative’, my answer is: manipulation is when you lie, like saying climate change is crap, or omit the truth, like not mentioning that climate change is the problem and not spelling out its effects. By contrast, openly discussing the science – which is frightening – and broadcasting our common plight to our fellow Australians, is taking responsibility for the truth. So, there are three elements that should compose the shape the direction of communications about global warming – we must be honest and upfront about:
  • The severity of climate change impacts and our susceptibility to those impacts.
  • The real adverse human impacts: the loss of life and livelihood, compounding over the generations.
  • The action that we can take, that millions of Australians are taking, to stop this threat, and that we can win.
CSIRO recently published a study on public attitudes and feelings about climate change. The study surveyed about 5000 people and asked, among other things, what their feelings about climate change were. Significantly, fear was the most highly rated emotion felt by the 50.4% of respondents who believed that climate change was real and human-induced. This group was most likely to be “somewhat worried” and “very worried” about climate change and tended to perceive higher levels of personal harm from climate change than respondents who thought climate change was natural or wasn’t happening. To my mind this shows, from another angle, how perceptions of threat (susceptibility to and severity of climate change) and fear may shape an opinion about the issue.
     Another large survey shows that fifty-nine percent of Australian respondents thought that the region where they lived was vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with two thirds of these respondents indicating that their location was “very” or “reasonably” vulnerable[9]. This result contrasts with that of Britons, who ranked the vulnerability of their location much lower. The researchers note that this may be due to how Australians are switched on to our continent’s natural climatic variability, and that in the words of Professor David Karoly (via Dorthea Mackellar), climate change will mean a country of more droughts and worse flooding rains. Again, these survey results show that in the public mind there is a well-founded perception of climate susceptibility and severity, indicating that an honest message on this theme would reinforce common understanding.
     I look forward, then, to seeing a communications campaign that kicks off with an advertisement that goes something like this:

“Good Health, Safe Climate”

A General Practitioner’s office. The Doctor sits on her desk and addresses the camera.

“As a Doctor, and a mother, I’m concerned about the health and well-being of my community. In my work I get to see the hardship that poor health can cause for people – and I get the opportunity to help my patients achieve good health. That’s why I’d like to tell you about the dangers that global warming and climate change pose to your health, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.”

Images of people caught up in drought, catastrophic flood, bushfire and heatwave. The image of a child struggling with asthma. Doctor’s voice over:

“Scientists agree that greenhouse pollution causes global warming, making our climate change. It means more droughts, more floods, and more intense bushfires. Heatwaves will last longer, and it increases the likelihood of asthma and the spread of diseases like salmonella and dengue fever.”

Back in the Doctor’s office:

“And we now know that climate change is very likely to cause significant economic disruption, which means that our lives, and the lives of our children are at risk. But it doesn’t have to be like this.”

The Doctor is in a park. She joins a group of people. As she speaks, the camera slowly pans back revealing more and more people.

“I’d like you to join with me and millions of Australians who are standing up for good health and a safe climate. We’re taking action to stop the big polluters, by coming together and making our voices heard: by voting, letter writing, signing petitions, and talking to our neighbours and friends about this threat.”

The camera pans upwards revealing, from overhead, a large crowd spelling out: Good Health Safe Climate.

“Join us: what you do now can make all the difference.”
This isn’t the last word; it’s just the beginning, an outline of elements that should compose a broader narrative that puts the health of families, children and the populace, at the centre of the message. Here I’ve emphasised civic participation activities in the call to action, rather than a tax or jobs and renewables. This is because without empowered participation, neither the tax, nor renewables and the jobs, would even be on the agenda – nor would there be any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change.